Academic Freedom at the University of Illinois

In this Aug. 26, 2014 photo, protesters at the University of Illinois in Champaign, Ill., protest against the school recently rescinding a job offer to an English professor named Steven Salaita to join the university's American Indian Studies program. (Photo: AP)

Academic Freedom at the University of Illinois

In October 2013 the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) offered Professor Steven Salaita a faculty position in its American Indian Studies program. Following usual procedures, the offer was made by the UIUC College of Liberal Arts and Sciences on the basis of an academic evaluation by the program faculty of his academic record, which includes a history of excellent teaching.

Professor Salaita promptly accepted the offer. Over the next nine months he resigned from his previous position, made arrangements for his family to move, was notified of his fall 2014 teaching assignment, and ordered books for his courses.

But then on August 1, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise abruptly overrode the department's academic decision on the basis of her own expert administrative analysis of Professor Salaita's tweets about Israel during its assault on Gaza. She determined from these that he would be a bad teacher.

How did she reach this conclusion? The decision to rescind Professor Salaita's offer long after he accepted it was based, the Chancellor explained in an August 22 mass email to the university community, on a standard of civility that holds for all:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

In other words, you can politely disagree with the Ku Klux Klan, but be careful not to demean any of their viewpoints.

If this standard were applied consistently, there would probably be no one left to teach (or learn) at the University of Illinois. Is there anyone who hasn't "demeaned" a "viewpoint"? But of course the standard cannot and will not be applied consistently.

On August 24, American Indian Studies, which had arranged last fall to hire Professor Salaita and now was scrambling to cover his classes at the last minute, voted no confidence in the Chancellor. It wrote that Professor Salaita's hire

had been properly vetted by the unit and approved by the college through standard academic procedures. This process culminated in the signing of a good-faith contract between Prof. Salaita and our college, and only awaited customary rubber-stamp approval by the UIUC Board of Trustees.

In clear disregard of basic principles of shared governance and unit autonomy, and without basic courtesy and respect for collegiality, Chancellor Wise did not consult American Indian Studies nor the college before making her decision.

Many others have also expressed their dismay at what UIUC has done and some have decided to boycott it. No one knows how all this will play out. But we should distinguish three issues.

First, there is the legal question of whether UIUC has violated the First Amendment, which protects the rights of public employees to free speech outside the employment context, especially on matters of public concern. In the event of a lawsuit UIUC will try to find legal loopholes, but Professor Salaita appears to have a strong case that UIUC violated his constitutional right to free speech.

Second, there are the free speech rights of all employees and students at UIUC. The Chancellor's mass email set a vague standard of civility that applies to all. This includes speech by faculty and students in all academic contexts and is thus a serious infringement on academic freedom throughout the university.

Finally, the Chancellor has failed to respect the academic freedom of the American Indian Studies program, which was charged to make exactly the sort of academic judgments it made throughout this process. The Chancellor's unjustified rejection of a legitimate academic decision in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences undermines UIUC's academic integrity.

I hope there will be justice for Professor Salaita, but we must distinguish his First Amendment right to free speech from the more general question of academic freedom. The academic freedom issues include the free speech of all UIUC faculty and students in all academic contexts and the academic decision-making of academic units such as American Indian Studies.

The first issue is a matter of human rights. The remaining issues concern the intellectual climate and academic integrity of the University of Illinois.

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